Denver Bar Association
July 2007
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International Fraud — It Could Happen To You
A Denver attorney’s story

Editor’s note: This article was written by a Denver attorney who wishes to remain anonymous. The client name has been changed.

It started innocently enough. I never imagined it was a sophisticated scheme aimed at Colorado attorneys.

The e-mail came on a snowy January Saturday. The writer, William Taylor, told his story in mildly-broken English. He had been in the U.S. recently to buy medical equipment for a Texas-based nongovernmental organization from a certain Michael Parker. The equipment wasn’t up to snuff, and the NGO returned it on delivery. Parker was in Colorado and had $58,000 of Taylor’s money. Taylor needed help collecting it. If I could help, his local attorney would call me about the terms.

His plight sounded genuine. I quoted him my hourly rate and a modest retainer, and e-mailed back my fee agreement.

A phone call came next, replete with the crackle redolent of an exotic land. "Mr. Attorney," he said. "Mr. Parker will call you. He is getting an equity loan. He will pay you the money. Then I need you to keep the money for me for when I return to the States." I explained to him that it would be very nice if Mr. Parker were indeed willing to pay up voluntarily, but if he didn’t, we were headed for court. I gently reminded Taylor of my required retainer.

The signed fee agreement came next by e-mail. Not so the retainer. More calls followed, in which I explained how dependent Taylor’s fortunes were on the kindness of Mr. Parker. But Taylor soon called with a glimmer of good news: Parker had received a small payment from a supplier in Seattle, and was going to make a down payment on the amount owed. Couldn’t I simply take out my retainer from the first payment? No problem, I responded, but it had better come soon; I was starting to get annoyed with the frequent, unproductive calls.

Taylor asked for my bank account information so Parker could send the money. (Did he think I was an idiot?) "Sir," I replied. "You don’t need account information. Mr. Parker simply sends me a check. I deposit it in my trust account. If it clears, wonderful. When you return to the States, I pay you the balance after my fees." The next e-mail came from Parker himself. He admitted that he owed my client the money. (Trial Exhibit 1!) He would shortly send me $7,000. My client’s echoey calls became more frequent: has the check arrived?

The snow had melted when the FedEx driver showed up in my front office with the mysterious envelope. The scrawled FedEx label recalled another far-off land; I paid little attention to it. Inside was a simple printed envelope from a Seattle firm containing a $4,000 watermarked business check, payable to my firm and drawn on a well-known national bank. With my usual mind toward top-notch client service, I rushed to the bank to deposit the check in my trust account.

Taylor was grateful, effusive, and quick to e-mail new instructions about what to do with his net recovery: wire it, by Western Union, to his travel agent in Cotonou, Benin, so that Taylor could return to the United States. to personally assist in the collection effort.

The story was growing stranger — Benin abuts Nigeria, after all — but there was nothing to fear. If the Seattle check cleared, there was hope for more business from the ongoing collection effort. If it bounced, I could close my file with an entertaining story. What I didn’t count on was the third possibility: a careless bank employee who told me a few days later that the check had "cleared," when all she meant was that I could draw against it — at my own risk.

We wired the funds the next morning, a senior staffer carrying a fistful of cash from the bank to the Western Union office at a nearby hardware store. We e-mailed Taylor the Western Union control number, and I looked forward to hearing his grateful voice on a clear, local connection; perhaps even seeing him in person.

Then the notice came from the bank: the check had been stopped.

Following a testy conversation with my bank’s bookkeeping department, I started down the rabbit hole of international fraud. No point trying to recover a few thousand dollars outside U.S. borders, so I turned my attention to the shadowy Seattle firm. But a few demand letters revealed the firm was quite legitimate; only the check was counterfeit.

The FedEx man showed up again a week later. Another envelope, from a Maryland address, contained five money orders, drawn on a Minnesota bank, for $850 each. A bit wiser, I spent a few moments on the Internet and learned the money orders were phony, as well.

Surprisingly, I heard from Taylor once more. He brazenly assured me that I was mistaken, that Parker promised him the money orders were good, and that I could cover my losses and send him even more money. It was time to bail.

Here’s what my hours of research into the world of 21st Century fraud have taught me:

  • The problem is staggering in its breadth. With sophisticated personal computers and printers, scammers in West Africa, Southeast Asia and even Canada crank out counterfeit instruments like so much junk e-mail.

  • Fraud is aided by Bank Regulation CC, which requires your bank to make limited amounts of funds available to you promptly regardless of whether an item has actually cleared. (Your bank teller may not understand the difference!)

  • Scammers find and exploit institutions of commerce and communications that provide the greatest protection for their own identities. Western Union transfers are virtually impossible to trace (Western Union has only begun to post warnings at its outlets about knowing your payee, but I’ve found the postings to be erratic and far from conspicuous.) Yahoo e-mail addresses (which can be established without proof of identification from anywhere in the world), postings and, of course, nations like Nigeria and Benin where law enforcement is overwhelmed, all allow international fraud to flourish.

With so many seemingly easier marks, it still confounds me that my scammers spent the time and effort they did concocting a scheme aimed at attorneys, the most skeptical of victims. I can only wonder if they do it for sport. In the dizzying world of international commerce, "big-game hunting" has been turned on its head, and anyone — even you — can become the hunted.

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